Antique ArtOne of the surest ways to paint saleable art today is to steep it in the past. Although antique shops have never held any fascination for me, I do enjoy museums, and being an artist, especially art museums. All three have one thing in common, a reverence for the past - sometimes distant, sometimes recent. The antique shop has a commercial interest in the past. The museum, an historic one, and art museums an educational veneration of the past. The past can be trusted. It's rock solid. It can't be changed. However, it is sometimes subject to reinterpretation as new facts are uncovered, or present day points of view change. A statue set against a wall looks quite different if moved to the centre of a room where it can be seen from all sides. The sculpture hasn't changed, only our viewing of it. We see the flaw in the marble that likely caused the work to be placed by a wall in the first place. Or we notice an error in judgement on the part of the artist that wasn't apparent before. The same is true of the past. And in selling art, nostalgia rules.
Until the modern era, all art was steeped in the past. Even today, a great part of it still is. Whether it's painting antiquated covered bridges on the one extreme, or longings after Impressionism in the middle, or the Abstract Expressionist days of the 50s, on the other end of the stylistic spectrum, the past plays a part. And that which isn't rooted in the past is often ridiculed and disowned by all but the most avant-garde in today's art world as radical, ugly, stupid, immoral, and dangerous to the greater native culture at large. And often, of course, not without good cause. The past is comfortable. It's a known quantity. The future is unknown, largely unpredictable, and thus frightening while at the same time being strangely enticing. Caught in the middle, the present is uncertain. Which way do we turn as artists, torn between the known and the unknown, the tiresome and the adventurous? In our present day anxiety, we cannot read the future, we can only study the past. So, it's not surprising at all that so much of our art is predicated on the teachings and points of view of our elders, often without much thought as to just how elderly they might be.
In looking to the past, we often idealise the Renaissance with its trademark slogan, "Rebirth of Learning." But we're also prone to reading more into this phrase than it deserves, suggesting that it somehow symbolises "newness," when in fact, taken literally, it is also heavily laden with the past. And nowhere is this more evident than in Renaissance art. We often think of the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, Poussin, Mantegna, Claude, and others as being new. Literally of course, it was. That is, they were new paintings. During Medieval times and before, painting was rare. Sculpture and architecture were the high arts, dating back to Roman times, and before that to Greek models. And while there was no doubt some painting during these eras, little of it survived. So, the artform itself was new. Even the content was new. It was largely religious. And while Christianity certainly wasn't new, it was new to art. The same was true of the style. Realism wasn't new (not by a long shot), but it was improved. What wasn't new was the means of rendering this newness. Although there was little in the way of antique painting to emulate, the past had survived (in one form or another) with its antique models, both sculptural and architectural.
Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling was a "new" fresco, but its theme was Genesis - ancient history (even then). Raphael's School of Athens with its two classic Greek schools of thought, those of Plato and Aristotle, even the massive Greco-Roman architecture were far from new. Andrea Mantegna's St. Sebastian, harkened back to that of Pollaiuolo a hundred years before and in this case, seems a perfect visual metaphor with its classical, semi-nude figure bound to the ruins of a Corinthian column and Roman arch while standing upon the pedestal of a destroyed Roman sculpture lying at his feet. We hardly notice the many "new" arrows of his martyrdom amid such classical antiquarianism.
It would seem at first glance that Nicolas Poussin had departed radically from the standard Leonardo depiction of the Last Supper with his 1647 The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. With its circular arrangement of Christ and his apostles lying around a table in the Roman fashion of the day, it looks surprisingly like a scene from a present-day movie. But the newness is superficial; it's still set amidst heavy Roman architecture, its figures draped in classic Roman garb, and lit by a single Roman lamp illuminating an ancient religious rite. As the Italians might say, it was just old wine in a new bottle. Even in relatively modern times - the nineteenth century - as in the Pre-Raphaelites, or in the case of their German forebears, the Brotherhood of St. Luke, as seen in Overbeck's The triumph of Religion in the Arts (1831), whenever artists become ambivalent or anxious about the present (or just want to cash in on everyone else's similar feelings), they resort to the past to shore up their confidence (and sales). I do it. We all do, or have quite often. But perhaps we should all strive to do it less often. Wouldn't it be great if we could paint "the future" at least as often as we paint the past?
Contributed by Lane, Jim
1 February 2001