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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Balls has ruled out a return to politics - for now  

For Labour to now turn round and rubbish what it stood for damages politics even more

Ian Birrell
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?