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September 12, 2002

Artistic Problems


In my posting, "Godard redux," I referred, rather mysteriously, to the concept that art needs sustained engagement with artistically nurturing emotional/technical "problems." Reading that over, I'm highly confident (as Michael Milken of Drexel Burnham Lambert used to say) that nobody could guess what the hell I'm talking about. So here's an example.

In 1481 Leonardo Da Vinci got a commission for an altarpiece on the topic of "The Adoration of the Magi." Leonardo, not having an ounce of Christian piety in him, saw this as an opportunity to explore some formal ideas he was playing with. (Of course, this being the Renaissance and not the 20th Century, Leonardo had no intention of shocking or alienating the religious order who were paying his bills--he was perfectly happy to "illustrate" the Gospel story in such a way that it could be used as a backdrop for their church services.)

Leonardo apparently began his thinking with Boticelli's version of the same story which was about six years old at the time.


Leonardo obviously didn't think Botticelli had said the last word on the subject. If you notice, Botticelli's brightly daylit painting describes space largely by having his figures (conveniently clothed in different colored outfits) overlap, and having them stand under a structure that is obviously constructed in one-point perspective. Only in the upper corners does Botticelli use atmospheric perspective to show that the landscape background is far, far behind the foreground.

Leonardo seems to have had a brainwave: what if he could use atmospheric perspective (or something closely related to it) to describe the foreground figures and bring them into a clear spatial relationship with each other. He would have discovered a new "unity" for painting, that could make the figure groups attain the monumentality of sculpture (albeit by a completely unsculptural device). Leonardo seems to have found the technical effect he was looking for in dim, highly diffuse yet still directional light.

Leonardo, after two years of playing around, brought the picture to this state:


He then abruptly left town, abandoning the project and leaving the poor monks with this unfinished picture. I'm sure he had a cover story (artists always do) but I believe the real reason Leonardo gave up on the picture was that he couldn't figure out how to take it any further. To be more specific, when he started superimposing local color over his monochrome underpainting, how could he keep the "picture puzzle" effect of differing local colors from disrupting the unifying effect of light, shadow and atmosphere that he had already created?

The altarpiece sat unfinished for years, serving as a challenge to ambitious painters. Leonardo, on his travels around Italy, kept playing with this problem, although not, in my opinion, really solving it. The best he could do in his later paintings was to introduce very quiet, subdued, grayed-out colors (e.g., The Mona Lisa).

However, in the fall of 1504, a youth from Urbino showed up in Florence, eager to prove his mettle. Raphael immediately latched on to every advanced tendency in Florentine painting, absorbing what he could immediately and chewing over the rest. Clearly the "Adoration of the Magi" lodged deeply in his imagination. He quotes figures from Leonardo's painting in the "School of Athens" fresco which he executed around 1509 in Rome.

But the artistic gauntlet that Leonardo had thrown down was not resolved by the "School of Athens", and Raphael continued to respond to the challenge during the eight years of life he had remaining. After some paintings of ambiguous success, he finally achieved a true breakthrough with his final work, "The Transfiguration."

Raphael's Transfiguration

I mean, check out the breathtaking integration of light, shade, color and atmosphere in this detail:

Regrettably, Raphael died while still at work on this picture at age 37. Who knows how much further he might have taken this idea had he lived? And yet Raphael's death doesn't end the story of Leonardo's artistic problem. It went on to a long and happy life. 80 years later Caravaggio later took it up (undoubtedly having seen Raphael's masterpiece); and through Caravaggio it impacted virtually all of Baroque painting.

Anyway, this is an example of how an ostensibly technical challenge can inform the works of not only one artist, but generations of artists. Such challenges certainly appear to be a necessity for the production of a consistent body of art. Maybe we can explore why in future postings.



posted by Friedrich at September 12, 2002


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