09 April, 2007

Types of Subject

I had another post written for today, but I liked the conversation going on in the comments area for the previous easter posts. They bring up some global art issues that dovetail well with our art crit. conversation. I wrote the following:

Yes, those Renaissance (and Baroque) painters had a good handle on figurative, narrative and spiritual subjects.
When I see the three that I curated for the easter holiday, I wonder if there is anywhere else to go with realistic and figurative art in the present and in the future. Their works were nearly perfect in accomplishing their goals.

I think about Harvey Dinnerstein, who is a stunningly good contemporary figure painter. He uses the self-portrait, and urban scenes with contemporary figures as subjects. They match the quality of the Renaissance greats, although I'm not aware of any works he has done that are as complex as these multi-figured compositions.

What place does spiritual work have in art's present and future? Is it more important, less important or roughly equal to the place of socially and ethnically aware contemporary art?

My bias: I am more likely to either relegate to a lesser status, or just disregard any current art that is social, or political. The reasons are that I value more the formal qualities of art, including subjects that are self-interested (such as color or abstraction).


Philip said...

It is difficult to debate this interesting issue without being able to post (here) examples of figurative work that I like better than Caravaggio. To be honest, I don't really care for his work as it always strikes me as being rather 'muddy'. It was of it's time but it doesn't really hold my attention now.

Casey Klahn said...

I would be very interested in the figuratives that you like.
I wanted to add "realism" but I didn't want to mis-speak, because realism is a movement that came after these 16th-17th century works. If that's known, then I will say they are "realistic".
I also prefer van Gogh's portrait work (no surprise, there) because he did things like portray large fields of red (a soldier's trousers), and high intensity blue ( the postman's uniform).
But, for some reason I always attach figurative work to realistic depictions. There is no lack of this kind of subject in the "canon" of western art.
Let's talk about "muddy", because it's a good starting point. I think of muddy as a color word. Carav. was known for dark areas with figures "growing" out of the shadow - dramatic value contrasts. I have never seen one in person, but these jpegs show some color clarity, I think. In the crucifixion of Peter, he frames the subject in a clear blue-grey, and a red of equal value and intensity. He repeats the red trick in the Thomas and Jesus work. I think they're pretty good reds.
Yes, the old school used those yicky earth colors a lot, but I place them in their time. I also value them for their narrative meanings as color choices.

Robyn Sinclair said...

Casey - Should I speak through the Chair - or may I address Philip directly? Okay, I'll go easy. Oh Philip, I know you are a man of taste because you list Soylent Green among your favourite movies. It's one of mine as well - and most people don't even remember it!
I wanted to suggest a couple of Caravaggio's that could bring you back to his fold. Amor Vincit Omnia! The Card Sharps and Boy Bitten by a Lizard. Muddy? Lead me to the mud, I say. ciao robyn

Philip said...

I'm not sure what you mean by narrative colour choices. To my mind, the old masters relied too heavily on shadow and light. I suspect that if these pictures were painted now, they would not attract much interest as they are heavy beyond heavy. They are of historical interest to me but nothing more. I would much rather look at Jafabrit's 'Humerous' than the work of Caravaggio which seems to have no presence in the age in which we live. To a lesser extent I feel the same about Van Gogh. He is one of the few artists that I have been diappointed in when I saw his work in the flesh in Amsterdam - sorry as I know is your hero but I have to say what I think.

As for realism (going back to Caravaggio) I think, at that time, the crucifixion of Christ was portrayed in a very unreal way. It is the ultimate act of torture and should be stomach churning to look at. The paintings of the crucifixion are always sanitised compared to what was the reality. If we are to believe what happened to Christ in the days before the crucifixion, where are the signs of the brutality and the scars and blood on his body? I am left wondering why these religious paitings are done in such a sanitised fashion. In their own way, these paintings are, in my opinion, highly political. We need to take account, I suppose, of who was paying for them and what was their agenda.

Casey Klahn said...

The forum is open, Robyn - but thanks for asking.
I hadn't planned on having a go at Caravaggio in art criticism month. Even if the most noted critic of our day were to assail him, I don't think it would effect his status in the least. He is safely dead, and ensconced in the canon of art history.
I think he's as good a place as any to practice a little criticism, although I repeat that art criticism is mostly positive as far as usage goes.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading through these comments on Caravaggio and want to add my own thoughts. First I wish to comment on the muddy colors which Phillip brought up. If this is based soley on seeing works through jpegs or even books then you will be mislead as was I. 2005 in Naples Italy there was an exhibition, Caravaggio the Final years, which I was fortunate enough to see. Having at least thirty some odd books on the man, I was sure I knew what to expect. To my surprise,in some instances, the colors were more brilliant that previously thought. They are by no means muddy but low in saturation and still quite rich. I would suggest to Phillip see the painting "The Taking of Christ" in Ireland. The head of Christ seems to radiate with an inner light. Another good example, which is in Spain, is "Salome with the Head of the Baptist".

I agree with Phillip that the works of most Renaissance and Baroque artist are just religious propaganda. The church was the one commissioning most of these works. That is what must be taken into account, they are "commissioned" works and not entirely the creation of the artist. Simply put, they are works for hire. From the placement of characters down to colors employed, these were predetemined by the church which had its agenda and the artists were the instruments to help deliver that message. So I wouldn't be surprised if Caravaggio were subject to this treatment as well. If he were as highly paid as is reported to have been(from one painting he could pay two years rent)I'm sure he had strict guidelines to adhere to....not that he always did. If depicting the Virgins bare feet could cause a furor I can't imagine a brutally graphic depiction of the crucifixion meeting any less resistance.

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for the comments, Rickie. I wonder if the saturation has been dulled by time. Had they been restored at all?
I think a take home lesson is that he looks like he had a handle on his medium. Remember that Sepias and Umbers (I call them browns) are critical elements in these Mid-2nd Millennium palettes, and practically the national colors of Italy.
Your study of Carav. is admirable, and thanks for weighing in on this.
I disagree, though, on the political and economic statements made about these things. The church used "propaganda"? That theory would be believable if I thought that there was some vast populace of enslaved parishioners in Italy or in Europe in Renaissance and baroque times. Hardly the case. Why was I so surprised to see the devout and authentic adherents to Catholicism when I was in Italy last year? Could it be the "popular" take that nobody is a believer anymore? I saw the opposite, but maybe I am biased.
Let's admit my take that there were honest adherents to the Christian faith in Caravaggio's time, then I think the religious subjects he painted were authentic in so far as the public's honest demand for these things. Not propaganda...
Let's talk about propaganda for a minute. Picasso's Guernica was a commissioned mural of political content. I think an argument can be made for that as propaganda.
But, the economic base of renaissance artists being what it was, yes they did respond to their clients. But, show me an example of some "pure" art from the period, and then we would at least have a baseline or a control group.
I tend to give the artists a break, and at any rate I resist the efforts by art historians to redact, re-write or re-interpret old art. The newer requirements placed on old art by contemporary criticism theories is suspect, at best, IMHO.
Anyway - sorry to "burn" you on that, but "the churches agenda"? What's that?? Anyway, I hope you'll comment some more, and I'll try not to be too argumentative, but I have been seeking a chance to comment on art history's templates, and this was the opportunity.

Philip said...

Mrs Snowy

Forgive me for not responding to your point that was addressed to me.

Perhaps the word 'muddy' was rather unkind. Casey is right to refer to the amount of brown that he used in his paintings and it is this to which I am referring. In all honesty I have never left the fold of Caravaggio as I fully recognise his important contribution to art. All I am saying is that, as things go, it is not really my taste. I als think that many relgious paintings are more illustrative than realistic.

Philip said...

I am not sure if this discussion has run its course now but I agree that Guernica is most definitley propaganda as is religious art. Happy to expand if you wish!

You have certainly stirred the pot here Casey and it is interesting to read such diverse opinions (even if I am opposed to some of them).

Casey Klahn said...

I don't know how we got onto propaganda - was it Caravaggio's religious subjects?

I think if the church were foremost and/or only a political organ, then we could use the term "propaganda". I don't think we could show it to be that, though.

Besides, art history has been keen to de-spiritualize the artists of the Renaissance, etc., who painted these subjects. I'm not so sure that this is the case - they painted subjects common to their day, and Christianity was a common theme in the life of Western man, How can one take a painting with a Biblical theme or subject, and then use it to illustrate how such-and-such an artist was really not concerned with sacred subjects. It's a stretch, IMO.

And, anyway, one can argue that the renaissance was a time of social change, but the artworks remain interested in their subjects. I think the fact that David has a weinnie is probably not a very convincing argument that Michelangelo or Donatello weren't interested in the spiritual natures of their Biblical subjects.

Casey Klahn said...

I mean to say: we can't have it both ways. The Renaissance painters were either architects of a movement away from the church's influence, or they were propagandists for the church - but they weren't both!

Philip said...

I disagree, I think they did have it both ways. Also, propaganda is not a word owned exclusively by politicans and I do not see the word as derogatory. The Church has always propagated religion through art, missionaries etc and and it is quite legitimate to do so.

It's an interesting discussion which we could take much further but I am conscious that we are straying a bit and I don't wish to offend. It would be much easier to discuss this over a beer! I like thought provoking discussions although not everyone has the stomach for them!!

For my part I appreciate the effort you have made in getting these discussions going.

Casey Klahn said...

I appreciate your readership, Philip and everyone.

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Casey, I would say time has been a critical factor on the dull appearance on some of Caravaggio's and works from artists of that peroid and possibly botched restoration attempts as well. While their palettes were based on earth tones, saturation has to be taken into consideration as well. From my reading, when obliged to use vermillion he(Caravaggio) toned it down with black. And based on my own experience and experimentations I would not disagree with that. Black was an integral component of the old master palette which seemed to gain its poisonous reputation from the impressionist.

It is undeniable the church did set forth mandates pertaining to religious doctrine which in turn affected how religious imagery were to be portrayed. This too would apply to scientist, Galileo for example who had to recant his belief. I'm speaking of the Council of Trent. An artist or individual could not and dare not express their views if they went against what was set forth by the church. Casey,you made a point that artist must have believed this doctrine in order to paint these sacred subjects. I feel otherwise. While some may have believed without questions I'm sure some did have differing opinions but could not publicly or artistically air them. To do so was considered heresy. The church's interpretation of the bible was final. And acts of heresy would result in death.

There is a story of Michelangelo while working on the Last Judgement. As the story goes Michelangelo aruged with the pope that a man from the region of Jesus would be of a swarthy rather than fair complexion. We all know the outcome. If the message of Jesus is what is most important why then would a variant, possibly closer to the truth, be heretical? Because the church promotes a certain ideology.

Veronese was called to trial for his depiction of the last supper which contained Germans, bafoons and other questionable characters. Subsequently had to rename the work. Had it adhered to how that event is to have taken place, according to church doctrine, the trial would have never taken place.

The church's influence on the arts at that time goes without saying. It's no different than an artist today working for a corporation.....without the possibility of death. Certain guidelines are expected to be followed. This brings to mind a story told by Norman Rockwell while employed by the Saturday Evening Post. Though Rockwell had no bias against persons of different ethnic persuasians he was told by the head of the post to always depict blacks in an unflattering way.This was not his belief but did as he was told.Lets face it this was his money maker. My point is art in the old master time as now is business.Making their efforts more noble than they are is not realistic. Religious doctrine was being pedelled. And it was to be pedelled as the church wants it to be. So either conform or be cast out.

The market was much smaller then than ours today. Let's consider the art market at the time, religious, mythological, perhaps portraits not much else. Of the these, religious themed work was dominate.Therfore they went where the money was. Still life and landscape paintings weren't given much thought at that point in time.

I only mentioned the issue of propaganda as a response or addition to a closing statement in one of Phillips post, nothing more. Also, Casey no you didn't come across as argumentaive as I hope I do not.

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks, Rickie.
Rickie posted the previous entry by mistake with another name, and then e-mailed me to straighten that out. I trash canned that duplicate and this is essentially the same comment that has just been posted.

I have ranted a bit, I think. But, thanks.

As a B.A. degreed guy in the Bible, I think that the analysis you give may contain some assumptions.

The church did exhibit excesses, which were later kind of self-regulated by a thing called The Reformation. I want to take note of something here that is part of current discourse.
The total number of those wrongly and cruelly murdered by the church in the Dark Ages numbered in the few thousand - maybe 2 - 3,000. That, over the course of several hundred years' time. As everyone knows, I hope, these acts were certainly extra-biblical in content, character and nature. Evil, in fact.

But, the assumption is made that a heavy-handed church of the middle ages (which was followed eventually by a return to classicism known as The Renaissance)had no honest or faithful adherents. Everybody was bullied into believing lies, I guess!

Of course, the truth is that there were plenty of faithful, but they were limited in knowledge by the means at their disposal. remember that literacy was very, very thinly spread. Gutenberg solved that problem.

Anyway, it's going to require more to argue the actual mind-sets of the Renaissance and Baroque artists than the fact that the church was heavy handed. The simpler explanation is always the closest to the truth, and if a guy painted a spiritual subject, then you'll need to prove some detailed example of Caravaggio disclaiming his subjects. maybe that exists, but I'll need to see it.

You'll have to forgive me, but Michelangelo wanted to paint Jesus as "swarthy"? As a semitic man by extraction, myself, I wish I were a little more swarthy - I could use the color. But, I find it a little hard to believe that the artist had a desire to change a major element of Western Art, and had an argument with the pope over that. The pope, even a good one, probably had little time for arguing artists, I'm sure.

I have it (rightly or wrongly) that Europeans either were ignorant of the looks of the Hebrews, and painted from life their own kind, or that they preferred what they were familiar with. Let's not make up a conspiracy, here.

Norman Rockwell was told to paint blacks in a bad light? I am real sorry, Rickie, but that one seems ready-made to me, too. I'm not saying you made them up, but take a look at how that one sounds. I think the Freedom of Religion image that he did is a classic of Americanism, and I think one may have to work a little harder at indicting the old boy's integrity than that!

Okay, I just had to put that out from the way these things read to me. Again, thanks for the interaction. Now, I'll be out of touch for a few days doing some anachronistic things in anachronistic ways - Turkey Huntin'!

Anonymous said...


I will dubiously grant you the Michelangelo debate. But Rockwell? Give me a break. How it sounds to you is of no consequence, sorry to say. Have you ever seen the documentary on PBS? I'm sure you have not. It is an episode of American Masters. Watch the espisode then respond.

Anonymous said...


I'm not making the claim that every renaissance or baroque artist was a secret heretic or had no belief in what they were painting. But it is hard to believe that only the holiest of holies could have painted these religious imagery.What of Sodoma(before Caravaggios time I know). This nick name was not acquired through pious and religious acts. If that were the case Caravaggio should have never painted any religious images, a murderer and by most accounts a homosexual. And no I have nothing against homosexuals.

If you know your art history you are then aware that the image of God has altered from the Middle ages to the Renaissance. Example, the Ghent Alterpiece by the Van Eycks. In the upper inner panels there is a figure enthroned flanked by Mary and John the Baptist. By modern standards we would say the central figure is that of Christ when it is God the Father. The youthful image of God commonly asociated with Christ,which at that point in time was the iconic image, has changed. That change came during the Renaissance and but it is Michelangelo's depiction of God which we have all come to accept. But why change a major element of Western art?

FYI Casey, the Council of Trent was from 1542-63, not exactly the Middle Ages.

Casey Klahn said...

Rickie, you bear the burden of proof on the Norman Rockwell story.
For the audience, Rickie has e-mailed me and said that he believes he heard Rockwell tell the story himself, and so I will yield to him. I just wanted to let you know that the comment above transfers the burden incorrectly.
I guess you mean (but I really don't know) that the Council of Trent(Trento, Italy))post-dates these discussions about the renaissance. I never said otherwise, as everyone knows that Luther was a sixteenth century man. BTW, he got my vote for the man of the millennium.
I know that Caravaggio was a murderer. I should have better said that the many artists of the renaissance and Baroque should be considered Christians, until shown by their own words that they were not. I wish to be the last person to judge a man's eternal things.
As far as the "look" of God (Yahweh - the uncaused cause) any depiction is certainly a long shot. Jesus? many people have tried to peg me as looking like the Saviour, but I hasten to say that is because I had a Jewess Grandmother. It moves me not, as we all know he was a common looking Jewish man.
It is interesting that the artists who depicted what are our "art-canon" images of Christ did so with European traits. I don't know what that really has to do with the spiritual merit of their art or lives - seems moot to me.
You have some good knowledge, Rickie - why don't you fill out that profile more so we can get to know you!

Casey Klahn said...

I have enjoyed the van Eyck lamb slain for me image for years. I never thought about the image of Christ as looking old. Is that what you mean?
Just to show you the funny things that art historians cook up, they want to say that van Eyck used complex optical systems (like mirrors) to craft his works.

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