Thursday, November 26, 2015

Two great "failures" signal the break between painting and architecture –Leonardo's Last Supper and Michelangelo's Last Judgment. That both works are about "last" events suggests that in the minds of their creators there might have been some other last thoughts. Wall decoration obviously was not the kind of ambitious goal Leonardo had in mind for painting –witness his inability to make emulsified paint stick on walls. If Leonardo expressed ambivalence about decoration, Michelangelo went even further, unleashing pure anger and frustration. There is no doubt about Michelangelo's intentions in the Last Judgment: he totally destroyed the visual coherence of the Sistine Chapel by blasting out the end wall. It is very hard to know what this mural means to say about painting. Michelangelo's florid aggressiveness seems to attack everything that has gone before, including his own work on the ceiling immediately above. The Last Judgment is illusionism run rampant. There is no compositional restraint, no pictorial enframement, no sense of physical weight; the figures float high and wide. Pictorial cohesion, architectonic space, sculptural gravity –all these aspects of Michelangelo's genius become just so many pieces of driftwood. Painting before the Last Judgment was painting one could look at, or at least into; after the Last Judgment painting became something one could walk through. Michelangelo dissolves the end wall of the Sistine Chapel so that we can exit the church through heaven and hell, moving out of the Renaissance toward Caravaggio's world, a world of sensuality and spatial incongruity beyond even Michelangclo's imagination. 
I looked through a copy of Stella's book soon after it came out. I think I stole one. But I put it down pretty quickly when it became clear he was still speaking as a formalist; he sensed the dynamism of Caravaggio's sense of space but couldn't describe the cultural change that produced it. Intellectually he was and is a modernist. But his work is not.
Here Berenson is writing about Perugino and Raphael, but we have a hard time keeping Caravaggio from our thoughts: "Art comes into existence only when we get a sense of space not as a void, as something merely negative, such as we cus-tomarily have, but on the contrary, as something very posi-tive and definite able to confirm our consciousness of being, to heighten our feeling of vitality" (Italian Painters of the Renaissance, vol. z, Florentine and Central Italian Schools, London, Phaidon, 1968, p. 88). After setting the scene for the importance of the positive effects of space on art and experience, Bcrenson notes that "space-composition is the art which humanizes the void, making of it an enclosed Eden, a domed mansion wherein our higher selves at last find an abode." He continues: "Space-composition ... woos us away from our tight, painfully limited selves, dissolves us into the space presented, until at last we seem to become its permeating, indwelling spirit ... And now behold whither we have come. The religious emotion ... is produced by a feeling of identification with the universe; this feeling, in its rum, can be created by space-composition; it follows then that this art can directly communicate religious emotion ... And indeed I scarcely see by what other means the religious emotion can be directly communicated by paining—mark you, I do not say represented" (pp. 88-89, no-91).
Stella's point is that Berenson doesn't like Caravaggio but nonetheless describes, unawares, the sense of pictorial space that only begins with him. I'd add that Stella's book describes the importance of cinematic space without noting the importance of film. Even more surprising, there's no mention of Bernini.  I want to say to Stella what Le Corbusier said to Oscar Niemeyer: "Oscar, what you are doing is baroque. But it's very well done."

That's not an insult. My argument is always that it's up to others to describe what we do. They do a better job of it. It's important to let them. Still...
Painting before Caravaggio could move backward, it could step sideways, it could climb walls, but it could not march forward; it could not create its own destiny. Without a deliberate sense of projective space, painting could not become real. The road to pictorial reality must pass through the dissolution of perimeter and surface. This is the road paved by Caravaggio to lead great art toward what we now call great painting.
That's where observation ends and fantasy begins. Art is never "real", and it does not "create" it's own destiny. What Stella is describing is Caravaggio's realization that with artists' new technical facility painting could now become a profoundly compelling lie. Theater is fiction. But then all art is fiction, including the art of the Church.  Mannerism recognized that but the art is torn between poles of indulgence and guilt. Caravaggio's work is not torn. It's at home with the new world of ambiguity.

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