Blog Archive

5/31/11 Blog

5/31/11 Blog

The big news I want to begin with today is that four more of my video-recorded lectures, 7A&B and 8A&B, taking us through the end of the Northern Song period, are now available for watching. Go to the Youtube site (The pictures are the wrong ones, but that will be fixed.) These haven’t yet been added to the IEAS site or to my own here—both take time. But they are watchable, and for those faithful watchers who can’t wait for the next ones to arrive, there they are. They include my treatment of the Northern Song monumental landscape tradition—which I take to be the highpoint of the whole series, and among the great achievements of man—concentrating on the works of Yan Wengui, Fan Kuan, Xu Daoning, and Guo Xi. Then a lecture centered on the works of two “noblemen artists,” Zhao Lingrang and Wang Shen, and one devoted to the early masters of the literati tradition, Su Shi and his crew. Lecture 10A&B, two longish lectures on bird-and-flower painting through the end of Song, will follow shortly (out of order) and will offer among other things a first-ever attempt to trace a stylistic development in this genre, besides presenting numerous images of astonishing quality and beauty. Rand Chatterjee and I are working hard to finish the remaining three (or eleven, or whatever) of the series; then, if my health holds up, we go on to two additional series, which I mean to introduce in a later blog.

The remainder of this one might be titled: Put It Back Behind the Sofa! The Sunday (May 29) Arts and Leisure section of the NYTimes devoted most of three pages to an oil painting (on wood panel) purporting to be a work by Michelangelo; a big color reproduction of it on the front page, and more reproductions, including one of the real Michelangelo drawing on which it is based, on later pages. The long text reports on a new book about it, tells of how leading experts have delivered the opinion that it may well be a real work by the master, how it was shown long ago at the Met and elsewhere, then fell into obscurity (behind a sofa, fell off the wall that is) for many years. All very impressive—until one looks at the pictures. (They can also be seen, more clearly, in older articles about it on the web.)

I have saved the NYTimes pages and mean to use them to show my boys Julian and Benedict, now nearly sixteen, when I next see them. And if they fail to see the profound difference between the painting and the drawing, I will disown them. (Don’t give away my plan by telling them, please.) What they will tell me, after looking for a while, is that the painting cannot possibly be by Michelangelo or any other really good artist, because of its total failure to achieve visual effects of space and depth, in the way the drawing does so magnificently (even with its more limited means.) Forms that recede or turn in space in the drawing are completely flat in the painting, with everything appearing as pressed against the frontal plane. The virgin’s face, which tilts back and has a properly soulful look in the real Mike is straight up & down in the painting and looks more angry than distressed; the head of Christ, convincingly bent forward in the drawing, is a flat blob in the painting; his bent legs fail to move forward and back—and so forth, striking contrasts of this kind throughout the two works.

So, how has the painting been able to fool so many people, including reputed experts? Hard question; the only general answers I can suggest are, first, that a lot of money is involved—many millions of dollars, one estimate is 300 million—and secondly, that the directions painting has taken during the past century or so have not obliged the viewers’ eyes to develop the capacity for reading effects of space and depth, the placement of objects at different angles to the picture plane, and all the rest. So that visual capacity in viewers of pictorial art has been largely lost. It can still be regained, by attention to the great paintings of the past, which required this kind of reading—people can be taught, that is, to see. Whether that will happen, on a large enough scale to be significant, is another question. My lecture series is, among other things, an effort in that direction.

(Let me anticipate an objection that will be raised: how can you offer such sure verdicts on the basis of reproductions, without seeing the originals? To answer that I can only repeat what I often told my students: strange as it may seem, one can often see the compositional strengths or faults of a picture –the larger features, not the fine “hand of the artist” things— more clearly in a photo or reproduction than in the original. This is especially true when the original painting is large, and on dark silk, as many old Chinese paintings are, but it is true of other kinds as well. I have learned this over decades of looking, and can only offer it as a truth without attempting an explanation of why it is so.)

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...